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The week in audio: To Catch a Scorpion; Romesh Ranganathan; Uncanny Series 4 – review
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The week in audio: To Catch a Scorpion; Romesh Ranganathan; Uncanny Series 4 – review

To Catch a Scorpion Radio 4 | BBC Sounds
Romesh Ranganathan Radio 2 | BBC Sounds
Uncanny Series 4, Case 1: The Flood Radio 4 | BBC Sounds

The logo for To Catch a Scorpion

Sue Mitchell is an audio documentary-maker of high standing and experience. She made the excellent podcasts Million Dollar Lover and Girl Taken, and the Aria award-winning Radio 4 series The Smugglers’ Trail. The last two tell stories of asylum seekers coming over to the UK, and Mitchell takes up the same topic for her latest BBC Sounds podcast, To Catch a Scorpion.

Here, Mitchell and Rob Lawrie, an ex-army guy who volunteers with migrant communities, try to track down an extremely shady, internationally wanted criminal, Scorpion. Real name Barzan Majeed, Scorpion runs illegal people-smuggling operations that charge migrants thousands of pounds to get into the UK. He is, by all accounts, a highly scary, money-obsessed scumbag, happy to fleece desperate people of whatever he can get. And he gets a lot. We hear from one of his associates, who says that a packed dinghy making one trip across the Channel will net Scorpion nearly £500,000, each person paying £8,000, with about 56 people in a dinghy (the dinghy itself costs roughly £6,000). That’s a single trip. Even if Scorpion pays a man on the ground £50,000, that’s an awful lot of change. Flights to Rwanda won’t change this maths.

Mitchell is an engaging audio presence and an exceptional interviewer, who somehow gets people to warm to her while asking very direct questions. Lawrie has a different role. I recognised him instantly as the central character in Mitchell’s Girl Taken; a well-meaning chap who, on an altruistic whim, decided to smuggle a four-year-old Afghan girl over to the UK. (He was fined by the French courts but not imprisoned.) Lawrie is charismatic and well-connected, but perhaps a little overeager to find the action and be the centre of it. (If I tell you that he used to wear a red cowboy hat all the time, you’ll get the gist.) Still, Lawrie is a definite asset. He has contacts everywhere, from Calais to Iraq, who make all the difference in getting the podcast made.

And phew, this is a fantastic series. In attempting to track down the big guy, working its way from bottom up, To Catch a Scorpion reveals the nitty-gritty of how people are making their way to the UK, and why. For a start, the smugglers don’t tell migrants they could stay in France or Germany, because they want to make money out of them getting to the UK. And we learn that they offer various packages, like an exploitative travel agent: £800 to get you near a lorry, £8,000 for a dinghy spot. More, and they’ll bribe someone to let you walk straight on to a ferry (the presenters talk to someone who did exactly this).

There are some nutty scenes: Mitchell and Lawrie end up in a French wood in the middle of the night, tracking a lorry that’s about to be loaded up with people hoping to cross the Channel. In episode 4, released on 10 May, they hang out with a well-meaning Belgian woman who lets migrants stay in her house and helps them find their way to the UK, for no reason other than she wants them to have a better life. This series really is an eye-opener. I don’t know if they will get to Scorpion, but the journey so far has been riveting.

Romesh Ranganathan has (another) new job; he’s taken over Claudia Winkleman’s slot on Saturday mornings on Radio 2. A big show, and after two goes at it he seems to be almost there. His presence is upbeat, and he’s very likable, but there are a couple of teething problems. The competitions are lame, and when Ranganathan lets his friends in for a chat, everything goes haywire. On his first show, his interview with Rob Beckett was all over the place – too messy to be fun. On his second, father and son Martin and Roman Kemp came in to promote their podcast. This went well (Ranganathan told a lovely story about taking his own dad to an Arsenal match), but then Kemp senior introduced a ghost-spotting phone app and things fell apart again. Too much guffawing, too much chaos.

Romesh Ranganathan at the Radio 2 microphoneView image in fullscreen

It’s all fixable. Don’t let the laughter go on too long before you explain the situation. Don’t let guests stomp over Sally Traffic’s territory (she ended up having to say “What are you laughing at?” and “What is wrong with you?”; pretty cringey). That section felt boysy, with studio bants prioritised over the listeners.

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The playlist is pretty good, though I could have done without the Red Hot Chili Peppers’s plank-spanking pseudo funk. It was great to hear AC/DC’s Back in Black, Pulp’s Mis-Shapes and PM Dawn’s Set Adrift on Memory Bliss in the mix, and no doubt Ranganathan will tighten up over the next few weeks. Hosting is harder than being a guest; it takes a little while to learn how. Saying “What is going on?” over and over isn’t really the answer.

Logo for the Uncanny USA podcastView image in fullscreen

On Radio 4 there’s yet another series of Uncanny for fans of spooky stories. This time, Danny Robins is in the US, a place that always does things bigger and better, especially in the southern states, which are definitely scary. The whole story is kicked off by a Ouija board, and we quickly get lights failing, banging on remote doors, strange slender man-type figures at the window, and of course, this being America, guns. The pace is faster than the British-set episodes because a lot happens, so Danny doesn’t have to string everything out, and the experts on Team Sceptic (a new American chap, Ben Radford) and Team Believer (the usual Evelyn Hollow), have to work fast to get through all the action. What’s not to love?

Source: theguardian.com